Hot & Spicy Mexican Food Café Is A Little On The Bland Side.
By Rebecca Cook
IT OCCURRED TO me recently that I might have lived in Tucson too long. How was it that I, a confessed Anglo transplant from the Pacific Northwest, found myself wanting desperately to wander back into the kitchen of Fourth Avenue's Hot & Spicy Mexican Café to discuss with the chef the finer points of a really good red chile?
I've eaten Mexican food in an untold number of restaurants, had the pleasure of dining graciously in homes where the recipes extend back two or more generations, and I've been the appreciative beneficiary of friends' sharing their own or their mothers' favorite Mexican dishes.
At this stage of the game, I believe I know what good Mexican food is all about.
Conversely, I believe I can also sniff out food that falls short of the grand and glorious culinary tradition that traces its roots back to the ancient majesty of the Aztecs.
Everything about the Hot & Spicy Mexican Café initially intrigues. It's located on one of Tucson's most quirky and artsy thoroughfares, it's family owned and operated and it's colorfully cozy, tucked into a small alcove off the avenue. Perhaps I just expected too much from this tiny counter-service establishment. Then again, how can anyone presume to feed Tucson residents bland Mexican food and expect to get away with it? While such fare might pass muster in Poughkeepsie, down here it's just not going to fly.
Walking through the lavender door, I anticipated that my nostrils would be assailed with an enigmatic mix of aromas: garlic, onions, roasted green chiles, mole and grilled strips of beef and chicken. Am I the only person who considers the smells emanating from the kitchen one of the first indicators of a fine dining experience?
Intoxicating scents can promise so many wonderful things and whet an already gnawing appetite.
But there was no olfactory stimulation as we entered Hot & Spicy. Oh, well--I considered the possibility that they had a fantastic kitchen ventilation system. The gregarious young man at the counter encouraged only the most favorable of assumptions about the place.
No beer or wine is served at Hot & Spicy, and apparently they're still in need of an ice machine, so non-alcoholic beverages can be had only in cans or bottles. We settled on something wet and then ordered some jalapeño nachos to munch on while the rest of our order was filled.
I don't know what I expected of these nachos. Maybe that they would have lots of shredded cheese layered onto freshly crisped corn tortilla chips and be sprinkled with flecks of jalapeño pepper? But what we got was a cardboard carton filled with commercial chips and topped with what I can only describe as ballpark cheese sauce and pickled jalapeño rings.
This in itself was disappointing, but even more distressing was the fact that these nachos weren't even as good as the ones we occasionally devour at Arizona Stadium during football games. I still can't decide whether to chide Hot & Spicy Café or commend the stadium concession folks.
We gathered the rest of our meal and hoped for the best. We didn't get it.
Hot & Spicy Mexican Café prides itself on its vegetarian offerings, and to its credit it does feature a vegan burrito and a variety of meatless specialties. The idea of potato tacos piqued my husband's curiosity, and, indeed, portended something fairly innovative. I envisioned some finely diced new potatoes, cooked until tender, tossed with some green chile strips and a hint of garlic and then topped with shredded jack cheese, chopped tomatoes, green onions and lettuce. This actually sounded pretty tasty.
The reality of the dish, however, was somewhat different. Bologna-sized discs of flour tortillas were smeared with partially mashed potatoes and covered with a mass of shredded iceberg lettuce and a couple slivers of sliced radish. Blah.
Rescuing the dish from gustatory oblivion was Hot & Spicy's salsa fresca, the only offering we discovered that lived up to the café's moniker. Composed of fresh bits of tomato, onion, green chile, jalapeños, cilantro and a pinch of garlic, it's a marvelous salsa rendition: fully packed with flavor and infused with enough heat to generate little beads of perspiration along the upper lip. If it wasn't for the salsa, the potato tacos would have been a total loss.
I've always considered a Mexican restaurant's red chile the true measure of its greatness (or lack thereof). They might make a decent pot of refried beans or prepare killer enchiladas, but as far as I'm concerned it's the red chile that separates the men from the boys in this field. Sad to say, Hot & Spicy is still wearing knickers.
I have a friend whose mother collects dried chile pods from Mexico, New Mexico and Arizona, pulverizes them into her own unique powder blend and slow cooks the most incredible red chile you're ever likely to taste.
Maybe the comparison is unfair, but this red chile has become my standard, the 10 at the top of the scale. Hot & Spicy Mexican Café's red chile scores maybe a two. The meat is tender enough but devoid of flavor. Where the red chile or concomitant spices went, I have no idea. It was as though someone skipped that part of the recipe, chopped up some chuck roast and called it good. Had I not ordered my red chile burro enchilada-style, which added the mild piquancy of an adobe-colored sauce, there would have been virtually nothing to savor at all.
Squash is one of those vegetables that people seem either to love or hate. There is seldom apathy on the subject. If you've ever had the great good fortune to sample calabacitas, however, a dish that transforms the banal nature of zucchini into hedonistic delight, your opinion can be changed or solidified in a split second.
I've never had great success reproducing this dish at home, so I'm sympathetic to the difficulties of timing everything to produce the perfect result. In the variations my friends have shared with me, the squash is sautéed in a splash of oil along with fresh kernels of corn, chopped onion and green chile. Then, at the absolute last moment, shredded white cheese and a splash of milk are added and the entire melange is stirred until the cheese is just melted. The dish is immediately removed from the heat and enjoyed either solo or scooped into a waiting tortilla. Sometimes a bit of chopped fresh tomato is added, or the zucchini is combined with yellow summer squash, but this is the basic dish. It's spectacularly delicious.
Hot & Spicy's take on calabacitas? It wasn't terrible, but it more closely resembled stewed, canned Italian squash, onions and tomatoes rather than the subtle sophistication of the New World flavors that make up the dish I'm familiar with. Theirs might have made a satisfactory soup but flopped as a notable side dish.
It's true that border cuisine comes in many shapes and sizes, with influences from several regions of Mexico as well as Arizona, California, Texas and New Mexico. Maybe Hot & Spicy Mexican Café fills a niche I've overlooked. All I know is, if you're planning to open a Mexican restaurant in this town, it'd better be good. Unfortunately, Hot & Spicy doesn't stack up well against stiff competition.
Living in Tucson makes connoisseurs of us all.
Hot & Spicy Mexican Café. 431 N. Fourth Ave. 629-0715. Open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday. Closed Monday. No alcohol. V, MC, CH. Menu items: $2.25-$5.25. Takeout available and delivery to limited area with a $20 minimum order.
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